“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Rev. Martin Niemöller
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
What is evil and what separates it from bad behavior? In my mind, the two are not different points on the same scale.
Bad relates to choices and outcomes. Bad luck, bad decisions, etc. that all can range from mild to disastrous. While I can make a decision that causes harm to another, as long as there was not an intent to cause harm, the decision was not an evil one, just bad one. Getting into an auto accident due to momentary distraction (spilling coffee on yourself – the decision to drink hot coffee while driving being the bad decision) for example.
Bad decisions are not only an inevitable, they are a necessary part of life. It is through bad choices and their outcomes that we learn what works and what doesn’t, and choose better alternatives. Bad choices drives the evolution of good choices, as well as evolution in general.
It is in this regard, that the difference between ignorant and stupid is made clear. Ignorance is simply the lack of knowledge of a subject, and is correctable through experience or training. When you make a bad decision because you did not know any better, you are ignorant (at least until you learn the lesson of your experience). Stupidity however is the failure to learn from experience, despite repeated instances of the event. Repeating the same action over and over, and expecting different results, is the classic definition of stupidity.
Evil decisions however are driven by intent. When the intent behind an action is to harm or subjugate others for your own gain or pleasure, then the intent is evil as is the person behind the action. And again, depending on the scope, this can range from lessor evils such as can exist in unhealthy relationships, to massive evils behind the decisions and actions of Stalin, Mao and Hitler that lead to the death of millions.
In this regard, objects and events cannot be evil. Guns are not evil any more than hammers or rocks – it is all in what you do with them. Likewise earthquakes or hurricanes are not evil. Even though thousands may die there is no intent behind them. However if the actions of others lead to deaths in these events (for example by not repairing levies in order to pad your pockets or by situating nuclear power plants on fault lines in order to lower cost and increase profits), then the people behind those actions have demonstrated evil intent, to the degree that they were conscious of the risks and took them anyway. Here then there are degrees of evil – evil through selfishness, and evil through deliberate intent.
It is one degree of evil to situate the power plant in a high risk area knowing that it could cause large-scale death and harm, but you took that risk hoping that the event would not occur and you would get your reward in the interim. It is another (and much greater) degree of evil to situate the plant on the fault line because you are deliberately hoping for or acting to cause an event that can cause mass casualties.
But what about causing harm to others who intend harm to you? I consider the Duty to Protect to be one of my core duties (and it is for all living things, otherwise they will not survive). As such, defending myself against an aggressor is not evil – even if I kill them, though preemptively attacking them on the off chance that they might attack me, is evil.
This is an area where the aggregation of power in the nationstate has lead to the systemization of evil. All too often it is the excuse of preventing future harm that has lead to the excuse of needing to preemptively attack others before they attack us. This doctrine is as evil as those who willingly support and promote it.
In the end, evil starts with the individual. The individual with the unconscious mind is the fertile ground from which evil acts and an evil nature can spring, as they do not understand their own motivations. Religious and political ideology (or dogmatic ideology of any kind that restricts free thought), are the seeds that are planted in that fertile ground that can lead to widespread evil acts. Finally, it is evil governments and institutions, who fertilize and then reap the harvest for their benefit of the seeds that they have been planted in the susceptibly minds of individuals.